Is left populism a viable strategy?

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Populism is often characterised as stirring people up for unrealistic goals

Several socialist thinkers claim the left should employ the “populist” model being taken up by the right. Héctor Puente Sierra explains why they are wrong.

Phenomena as varied as Donald Trump’s election, Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity and the Brexit vote have been explained in the mainstream media as the result of “populism”. The term is abused by the defenders of the neoliberal consensus to dismiss anybody that questions the dominant economic and political set-up — whether the racist right represented by Italy’s new Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, or the radical left.

From this standpoint, what binds right and left together is their tendency to make “irresponsible promises” designed to stir the emotions of the masses of ordinary people. Against this the neoliberal defenders propose the moderate, “realistic” prognoses of the technocrats that have imposed austerity and lowered living standards everywhere.

Some on the left don’t shy away from the accusation of populism. This is most clear in the case of the Spanish party Podemos, launched in 2014, whose leaders claimed direct inspiration from the leading theoreticians of left populism, Chantal Mouffe and the late Ernesto Laclau.

But, in different degrees, people involved in the election campaigns of Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Insoumise, Syriza and its split Popular Unity in Greece, Bernie Sanders in the US or Corbyn in Britain have also toyed with the idea of founding a left wing version of populist politics.

The renewed interest in this politics is shown by the recent publication of two books by Mouffe and by Laclau. Mouffe’s For a Left Populism, as the author makes clear, does not aim “to add another contribution to the already plethoric field of ‘populist studies’”. This is welcome and makes it an accessible work for activists approaching the question for the first time, including those seeking to engage with it critically. Mouffe is aware that left populist ideas are no longer confined to academic circles but are being discussed by activists and campaign strategists. He says the book “is meant to be a political intervention” in the conjuncture we find ourselves in.

Mouffe’s main contention is that the fissures of the neoliberal consensus following the economic crisis of 2007-08, and the end of what she calls “post politics” — a period dominated by centre left and centre right parties defending the same policies — signals that we are in a “populist moment” that could lead to the establishment of a different order. This could have an authoritarian nature if the far-right parties across the world continue their advance. However, Mouffe correctly argues that we shouldn’t simply despair because the possibility also exists for the left to make gains and start a process of “reaffirmation and extension of democratic values”.

The task facing parties of the left, her argument goes, is to articulate a political discourse that points the finger at the powerful in society while bringing together the grievances of different groups against them, thus creating a “people”. Social movements and civil society have an important role to play in achieving hegemony or dominance for this narrative, but the crux of the matter is the election of the populist party to government.

A new edition of Laclau’s On Populist Reason, originally published in 2005, will provide readers with a more detailed, if also more academic, account of the workings of populism. For Laclau, populism is not an ideology but a way of doing politics.

There are three steps in the emergence of a populist formation. First, a group may have a “democratic demand”, say that more council housing be built. But while the demand remains isolated, it can easily be ignored or absorbed by the system. The existence of a series of demands of different groups, which are not satisfied by the system, however, can lead to their unification in an “equivalential chain”. The common source of the different problems — the establishment, the powerful, the elite — binds them together, turning them into “popular demands”. Society becomes divided “into two camps”.

Finally, Laclau argues, a group can emerge from within the movement that claims to represent the whole formation and gives it coherence, creating a “popular identity which is qualitatively more than the simple summation of the equivalential links”. The potential then exists for a movement that doesn’t just fight over a specific issue but that presents a challenge to the whole system.

Marxists are not alien to these notions. We argue for the involvement of revolutionaries in every struggle against oppression and for better conditions; for the different struggles to come together; and for them to generalise into a political onslaught on the capitalist system and its political institutions.

Whole of humanity

The working class is the universal group that, in acting to improve its situation, can improve the condition of the whole of humanity. So, how do Marxism and populism differ?

Laclau and Mouffe first put forward their idea of populism in their 1985 book Hegemony and Socialist Strategy — a book that book represented a shift away from Marxism. They, along with other “post-Marxist” theorists at the time, were influenced by a global shift to the right as the gains of workers and social movements of the 1960s and 70s were rolled back and Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan entrenched neoliberalism.

The working class movement suffered crushing defeats with lasting demoralising effects. In this context, Laclau and Mouffe argued that the left had failed to challenge the dominance of neoliberal ideas because it still prioritised the working class over the grievances of other groups, despite the fact that the class was in retreat.

This, they concluded, was because Marxism was deterministic — accepted the supremacy of economic factors over everything else — and had an essentialist approach to class, which saw consciousness and identity rooted in economic conditions. Populists therefore should seek to create a new agent of change without presuming any inherent socialist consciousness or previous existence as a coherent group.

This rejection of Marxism is based on very fragile foundations and the weaknesses of populist theory to this day stem from this fact.

Firstly, Marxism doesn’t see the proletariat as having a homogenous revolutionary consciousness. Rather, under normal capitalist circumstances, the working class is deeply divided, and within those divisions some are more willing to accept the bourgeois account of how the world works. But struggle that brings workers into conflict with that account, and the intervention of organised socialists in that struggle, can alter class consciousness.

Classes are not a “discursive articulation” as Laclau and Mouffe would have it, but an objective relation, within which workers occupy a certain position — regardless of how they self-identify. It is because of this objective position that revolutionaries look to the working class. Workers are exploited, but they are also the source of the wealth in society. They can challenge their exploiters if they use that power. This is what makes the proletariat “the universal class” — it is not just another oppressed group with its own demands but holds the key to fundamental liberation for all.

Secondly, only caricatures of Marxism such as Stalinism see political, ideological, legal or social changes in society as mechanically reflecting changes in its economy. Marxists believe that relations of production in a certain society do shape and set limits to what happens in those other spheres. However, this is not to say that said spheres don’t have a life of their own, or that they cannot clash with the workings of the economy.

The same nuanced approach is not to be found in the ideologues of populism. Notwithstanding their claim to transcend Marx, what we find in Laclau and Mouffe is a regression to a notion criticised by Marx nearly 200 years ago — namely, that ideas in people’s minds are a force on their own that shapes what happens in history.

For instance, Mouffe’s account of the rise of Thatcherite hegemony in the 1980s is completely divorced from the wider economic context underpinning the crisis of legitimacy of social democracy and the Keynesian welfare consensus that preceded it — namely, the end of the postwar boom and the decline in the rate of profit. Mouffe is primarily preoccupied with how the right was more skilful at seizing the opportunities and possessed a more appealing narrative than did the left, with its alleged essentialist obsession with class.

This disregard for the role of the economic has important consequences. Mouffe argues that the link between capitalist relations of production and liberal democracy is a “contingent” one. For Marxists, liberal democracy arises in capitalism as the political form that under normal circumstances best suits the interests of the capitalist class, and as a result of the fight by the bourgeoisie to wrest power from the old feudal order. But for Mouffe, the fact that capitalism as an economic system and liberal democracy as a political system appeared in the same period is just a historical coincidence.

This enables her to argue that what is at stake for the left populists today is “a different articulation between the constitutive political practices of the liberal-democratic regime and the socioeconomic practices in which they are institutionalised.”

She further argues that this conflation of the capitalist mode of production and the institutions of liberal democracy lies behind “the false dilemma between reform and revolution”. Her “third way” is a “revolutionary reformism” that neither seeks a total rupture with the state nor accommodates to the system as traditional reformism does. She claims that revolutionary reformism could preserve liberal democracy while challenging economic liberalism and capitalist property relations.

Although Mouffe criticises liberals for believing that the state is a neutral terrain, she denies its capitalist nature too. According to her, the state is “a significant site for the counter-hegemonic struggle”. This is married with her notion of an “agonistic model of democracy”. This is the idea that political conflict is compatible with democratic practices provided there is a framework where opponents are “not considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary whose existence is perceived as legitimate”.

Capitalist rule

What this ignores is that against capitalist rule the existence of an “agonistic” framework is not just a matter of political will. The rich and powerful will not sit in parliament to debate their own existence as a ruling class. Indeed, in her brief discussion of the 2015 debacle of Syriza, which she identifies as a successful example of populist strategy to come to power, Mouffe herself has to acknowledge that “unfortunately, Syriza has not been able to implement its anti-austerity programme because of the brutal response of the European Union”.

This “certainly raises important issues with respect to the limitations that the membership of the European Union imposes on the possibility of carrying out policies that challenge neoliberalism”. While such a sober assessment of the reactionary role of the EU is very welcome, Mouffe is wrong to identify limits to democratic control over the institutions of liberal democracy as lying exclusively within the European institutions.

The military, the judiciary or the established media in any capitalist state are not a set of institutions that can be commanded in turn by the bearers of capitalist interests and “revolutionary reformists”, all by the grace of liberal democracy. The revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg powerfully dealt with this question in Reform and Revolution more than a hundred years ago. She wrote:

“The representative institutions, democratic in form, are in content the instruments of the interests of the ruling class… as soon as democracy shows the tendency to negate its class character and become transformed into an instrument of the real interests of the population, the democratic forms are sacrificed by the bourgeoisie, and by its state representatives.”

For her, the question of the state and socialists’ attitude to it was not “a false dilemma” but a fundamental strategic question.

By these standards, whatever it calls itself, the strategy of populism is a reformist one inasmuch as it doesn’t seek to replace the state but to use it to transform society. The appeal populism holds for many activists today is rooted in their frustration at the meagre gains made by the left since the crisis broke out, contrasted with the advances of the far-right. But is this, as Mouffe claims, “the type of politics needed” to seize the opportunities open to us and face the threats of endemic crisis, racist and fascist growth and climate catastrophe posed by contemporary capitalism?

As much as Mouffe is genuinely concerned with how to reverse the rise of the far-right across Europe, left wing populism is not exempt from the logic of electoralism that can lead to accommodation to the dominant ideas in society — to accept that racism or nationalism are so widespread that only by embracing them to some degree can you become hegemonic.

Here the case of Syriza, with its government record of austerity and persecution of refugees, is very relevant. But this process of being changed by society can unfold even when the populist parties are not yet in power, as with Podemos’s refusal to support the struggle for democratic rights in Catalonia or Melenchon’s concessions to Islamophobia and nationalism. In Germany, Sahra Wagenknecht’s and Oskar Lafontaine’s Aufstehen movement’s attempt to get Die Linke to drop its opposition to all immigration controls follows the same pattern.

If socialism is to become hegemonic, we need to build a stronger anti-capitalist left that not only aspires to unite the oppressed against the powerful but that is uncompromising over questions of internationalism and racism. Crucially, it must be clear about the limitations of parliamentarism, the nature of the state and where the power to fight lies.